No More Borders in Architecture: the Precarity of ‘International’ Workers and Students

Inequality in architecture plays out differently for individual students and workers across academic institutions and architectural practices. A major inequality, not regularly discussed within discourse on precarious work in architecture, is  the discrimination in pay, hiring practices and working conditions dependent on residency status and ‘primary’ spoken language of a student or worker. ‘International’ status also intersects with aspects of class, racial identity; and experiences of architectural students and workers residing in the UK without citizenship are diverse. This post is in response to a number of conversations and interviews with architectural workers in the UK, who are either studying at university on inflated, ‘international’ fees, applying for visa-sponsored work, or currently working on a Tier 2 visa. We refer to ‘international’ students, graduates and workers in this article: an often-used term for people who do not have UK/EU citizenship rights.


“[At UCL] new regulations require international students on Tier 4 visas to physically sign in every month… far exceeding the Home Office’s requirements” © UCL Stop Policing International Students

‘International’ students are an important part of the equation of the ongoing privatisation of higher education. Less regulation enables and encourages institutions to charge higher tuition fee rates dependent on nationality, with some ‘international’ students paying as much as three times (£28,000 per annum) as much as their UK and EU ‘national’ student peers.[1] Higher fees facilitate the offsetting of Central Government grant funding cuts, but also offer new opportunities for ‘growth’. Universities are at the ‘frontier’ of educational imperialism, with many British universities planning to build new campuses across the Middle-East and Asia, opening up new markets for educational products. Beyond being seen as an untapped resource, what treatment do ‘international’ students and workers face, within the university and beyond? This post looks at the treatment of ‘international’ students/workers, and the systemic violence enacted upon them predicated on their residency status, nationality and primary spoken language. Like all migration policies, whilst all non-UK and EU students and workers are seen as ‘international’, and subject to the same instruments of law or financial penalties, whiteness and economic status intersect with an individual’s experience of these borders of labour, education and residency.

Yes, I couldn’t [take a break]. I don’t know, some students had a break. But I think most students who could have a break in the summer [holidays] were EU students because they don’t care about getting a visa.


The precarity faced by the ‘international’ stands in contrast to those with secure work permits and lower student fees. In education and employment, there is a two-tier system – in comparison to those with UK and EU citizenship, ‘international’ students and workers are subject to hostile environments, the costs of applying for work visas, higher student fees, restricted choice of landlords, potential bullying from tutors and colleagues, greater pressure to find employment sooner.  If you’re an ‘international’ student and you wish to continue to live and work in the UK, you have to apply for a Tier 2 or Tier 5 Visa.[2] The strict conditions of the visa, at risk of deportation, encourage students to take un- or low-paid positions – either just after graduating or throughout their studies – to greater increase their chances of success for sponsored employment. After the grueling test of final examinations, after intense years of study, the clock is ticking – after the 2-year post-study work visa was scrapped in 2012, now graduates have 4 months to secure employment with a starting salary of at least £20,800. Unlike their UK and EU ‘national’ peers, there is no time to rest or take a summer break, no ability to take part-time casual work while looking for the ideal position, nor the power to refuse an offer of work in unfair conditions.

DsX0i4BWsAAfoaH.jpgAhmed Sedeeq, a Sheffield PhD student who spent last Christmas in Morton Hall detention centre for accidentally overstaying a visa, is facing deportation once more.

Bordered Pressure

“…I was really anxious because it’s completely unclear what my future was. The only thing I’m sure is, I have to go out [of the country] unless I find a job before October. So time was going so fast…. it really is frustrating. Last summer when I was waiting for the jobs I had applied to to get back to me and I felt like my time was really running out. I felt really really frustrated. I almost thought that I needed to leave the U.K. and go back to [Country] and find a job.”

Graduation for many students can be a time of anxiety: the time to put newly-earned academic qualifications into a competitive job-market. Most graduates have a fear of unemployment and rejection, but for ‘international’ students there is the added threat of deportation. The inherent uncertainty of the application process was amplified for this interviewee, the effort channeled into cover letters, portfolio and interview with insecure return.

“Actually, the first time I had an interview with a practice, I thought that the important thing is how well I can explain my work, and that I did a good job studying….What they’re [really] looking for is not about the work being amazing but they’re looking for how a candidate actually communicates their ideas and whether they ‘look’ professional…”

Once the interview appointment is made, there are additional hurdles presented, with face-to-face communication a ground for judgment made on aspects such as racial identity and accent. Racialization influences an employer’s perception about a candidate’s ability, character, or demeanor; often amplifying the expectations employers have of harder-working ‘internationals’. Workers of Asian heritage are perceived to be happy to take on long hours for less pay than their non-visaed counterparts. Once employed, characterization and projection negatively impacts an employee’s experience and ability to progress within the profession.

“I wrote a cover letter about my history and my interest and skills…. I updated my CV and added a couple more pages of my professional work. Then, combining them all together and sending them by email. A day after, the human resource person emailed me about my working visa. ‘Do you have any right to work in the U.K.?” or something like that…. After I got that email I sent them my work placement letter from University…. they asked me how much time I wanted to work at their practice. So I wrote back like ‘I’m looking for a permanent position’.”

The ‘international’ interviewee’s personal merits or academic qualifications are always preceded by their residency status; measured against an economic calculus to maximise profit.  For a practice to be licensed to sponsor an ‘international’ student costs between £536 and £1,476 per annum. The price of the visa itself, depending upon whether it’s a transfer or a new application, is between £610 to £1,314 per annum.[3] The conversation about whether someone has the right to work in the UK is one about the monetary cost of, at most, £3,000. The ‘financial risk’ is usually absorbed by docked wages of the worker – meaning very little risk at all to the potential employer.

DhrckWOXcAE1MVDAn email sent to lecturers at University College London (UCL) stating that if they fail to comply with the Hostile Environment they may be liable to be personally fined £20,000. Image: Uni’s Resist Borders

“[Being born outside of the EU without a residency permit] It also affects the interview process. For example, when they interview U.K. or EU students, maybe the interview is more casual, just like a conversation or a casual chat or something like that… the only thing that matters is what kind of person you are. There is less pressure than or the international student. For international students the story is different because they care more about them because they are a bigger financial burden on the practice so you feel much more scrutinized…. the interview air is always a little bit more stiff.”

The intensity and scrutiny in the interview is dependent on one’s residency status. The interviewer can be more critical and probing if you’re labelled ‘international’. The ‘international’ interviewee’s experience is pressurised, not just because of the need to find a sponsored position within a narrow time limit, but also because of the hostile environment in the interview setting. The widely-held conception that ‘international’ workers are a “bigger financial burden”, negatively shapes both the interview and salary negotiation process, continuing to justify lower rates of pay while in work.


There are huge added pressures for ‘international’ students entering into employment on top of those usually faced by recent graduates. Upon employment the pressure persists: employed with visa, workers are expected to ‘behave’ and toe the office line, while commonly subject to worse contract clauses and rates of pay. Under threat of potential deportation, there is little room to maneuver.

The treatment and experiences of workers are not equal. Those with marginalised residency status, identity, educational background and perceived ability are subject to differing realities within both architectural education and architectural practice. The process of applying for jobs, interviewing, working, all facilitate the individual and structural biases of those in positions of power.

We need to develop new modes of working and employment that allow for all people to participate and thrive within the profession. Click here to download .PDF

[1] ‘Tuition Fees’, Royal College of Art <>

[2] ‘Sponsor a Tier 2 or 5 Worker: Guidance for Employers’, GOV.UK

[3] ‘Tier 2 (General) Visa’, GOV.UK <>

To search for an architectural practice that have given Visa Sponsorships previously use the link here.

Other useful links:

Citizens Advice – Immigration Advice

U.K. Council for International Student Affairs




Collective Empowerment Through Sharing

Collective Empowerment Through Sharing‘ is a pamphlet that tells the stories of the work and labour of architectural workers as collected through a series of interviews and surveys (November 2017–present): the experiences of over 100 people working in the profession. Based on our experiences, we’ve developed a framework of tools and tactics which can be used to re-frame our workplace oppression into collective action.

This is still a live project. Fill in the survey here and/or email us if you’d like to be interviewed.

Click here for a free .PDF

Click here to read online




If you’d like a printed copy please email us, alternatively you can pick up a copy at Freedom Press, Aldgate.

Design by:

Collective Empowerment Through Sharing’ pamphlet printed for ‘What (price) do we pay to work in architecture?’, w/ Workers’ Inquiry: Architecture, Whitechapel, 3 May 2018.

How can unionisation resist gentrification?


Unionisation Image.png

As part of Antiuniversity Now festival, 9-15 June 2018

“There is no alternative.”

The tabula rasa approach to development is carried through to the workplace. Treated as disposable – with low-pay, often illegal working hours, and bullying as general givens – we, as workers in regeneration, work to gentrify ourselves and others out of our homes.

As Architectural Workers, we ask if unionisation could not just be a means to fight for workers’ rights; but for a fairer city for everyone? Could, we – as activists, workers, and residents – build active resistance to housing precarity, and make spaces for collective organisation, learning, and recreation? What tactics could be mobilised to resist and refuse unethical work? What contemporary and historical labour and anti-gentrification struggles could we be inspired by; and how might they intersect and align?

This conversation is being co-facilitated by Architectural Workers, and members of United Voices of the World and the IWGB.


Working for What?


‘Working for What?’, Architectural practice is work. Architects are workers. The tropes are well-known: little pay, little sleep, and little dignity. So why do architects resist organisation? Even when bracketed as professionals, creatives, or even civil servants, we are the outliers. This short film demonstrates the day-to-day working life of the architectural worker.

Interview extracts are from real architectural workers, collected through interview and survey over the past 15 months: the experiences of over 100 people working in the industry.

A film contribution to the event, Fundamentals: Work @ CSM, 8th Feb 2018.


Architectural workers are striking!

Last Thursday, 22nd February 2018, was the first day of fourteen days of strike action against the proposed 40% cuts to the USS pension scheme, called by the University and College Union (UCU). 61 campuses are taking part in the largest strike action in the history of UK Higher Education.

A common argument is that those who work in the architectural sector are ‘professional’; and therefore would not be prepared to strike, or are not ‘in need’ of industrial action in the first place. On the contrary: the multitude of strikes, teach-outs, occupations, and protests, around the USS pension cuts proves collective action is both necessary, and possible. Work in education is part of the architectural industry; whether one is a lecturer, member of administrative staff, teaching assistant, technician, or student. The only difference between architectural workers in the university and in the office is that 48% of people employed in academia are unionised, whilst reasonable estimates put those in architectural practice at less than 5%.

We support our allies across the country!

“The attacks on pensions are indicative of the continued marketisation of universities; including the trebling of tuition fees, cuts to teaching & support budgets and unaffordable accommodation rents. Students are paying to learn how to work in jobs that no longer pay. The financialisation of universities is the sale of students futures: our resistance will be the return on their investments.” Rebel Architects Faction

The Rebel Architects Faction staged an occupation of the Architecture Faculty at Cambridge University, in solidarity with the striking staff on February 22nd 2018. We believe their inditement of the commercialisation of education is resonant with our critque of the architectural profession. Industrial and direct action are one way in which we can resist austerity measures of ‘viability’ and ever-increasing rates of profit for the few.


Members of the Rebel Architects Faction (RAF) occupy Scroope Terrace, in solidarity with striking staff at the Architecture Faculty, University of Cambridge.

Picket lines and occupations are the places to be discussing and enacting alternatives to the status quo. Stand in solidarity with the second wave of strikes this week at campuses across the U.K.

Congratulations on your pay rise!


Image: Adapted from Dilbert, June 1 2001 © Scott Adams

The [London] Living Wage is an independently calculated value which takes into account the costs of living. It reflects the higher cost of Living in London, and includes under-25s; unlike the government’s “National Living Wage”. On the 6th November 2017, the Living Wage Foundation announced an increase in the [London] Living Wage, to reflect inflation. This increase changes the minimum hourly rate from £9.75 to £10.20 in London, and £8.45 to £8.75 in the rest of the UK.

AJ100 data shows that a decade ago many Part Is in London earned £18,000 a year. This is still commonplace today. For a 40 hour week, this is £8.65/hour. This wage stagnation is primarily attributed to architects’ fees not rising relative to increasingly higher project costs; but partners’, associates’, directors’, and architects’ pay have all increased by higher margins. Fee stagnation affects the lowest paid – architectural assistants and admin workers – the most.

Taking effect from January 1st 2018, the Royal Institute of British Architects has stipulated that RIBA Chartered Practices must pay all of their staff [London] Living Wage. This extends existing the [London] Living Wage coverage of “students undertaking practical training (PEDR)”, established January 1st 2016, to include all staff*, including freelancers. [*It is unclear whether this also includes outsourced workers, such as cleaners. To be officially accredited as a Living Wage Employer, all outsourced staff who work on the premises for more than 2 hours a day must be covered.]

How are RIBA going to enforce their new clause? The onus is put on the employee willing to report their practice for misconduct. Only 4 years ago RIBA had to be told that unpaid internships were still commonplace. Even since the 2016 incorporation of the [London] Living Wage into RIBA Employment Policy, payment of the Living Wage is not guaranteed – it is still deemed ‘good practice’. Do the 5% of practices examined in its “random annual audit” consistently abide by the rules? When practices claim to be Living Wage employers, they rarely actually are. A key principle of the Living Wage is that it is paid for all hours worked. From our ongoing survey of workers’ experiences in architecture practice, regular overtime ranges from 8h to 60h a week. The industry is propped up by the notion that overtime ‘doesn’t count’.

This attitude encourages a workplace where employees, particularly architectural assistants, are seen as expendable and easily replaced. The devaluing of work, coupled with overwork, also dis-empowers workers from having any claims on the nature of their of work, and how the practice is run. We demand a fair wage that goes beyond the ‘minimum’, alongside greater worker control of all aspects of the architecture industry.


So, what can you do about it? Take our survey. Record your hours minute-by-minute, including any work you do in your unpaid/paid breaks. Record what tasks you are asked to complete in your working and ‘non-working’ hours. Record stories of abuse and exploitation that affect you and others. Question TOIL (time off in lieu) policies: many practices only accept TOIL above a threshold of +10-15h a week; meaning that unpaid overtime is contractually defined as usual, expected, and regular. Calculate what your actual hourly rate is, and compare it to the [London] Living Wage hourly rate: £10.20/£8.75 (London/rest of UK). Turn these observations into the basis for action. And remember, our voices are stronger when they are united.


What is your real hourly rate, and how does it compare to the [London] Living Wage?

London, 40h week, Living Wage Hourly Rate + paid overtime:

09:00-18:00, Monday-Friday, 1h unpaid lunch daily = £21,216/year, £408/week, £10.20/hour

+8 hours overtime = +£81.60/week

This is equivalent to an extra paid 8h day of work a week, a 20% pay rise, and £4,243.20 extra a year. If you are not paid overtime then your hourly rate is £8.50

+60 hours overtime = +£612/week

This is equivalent to an extra 7.5x 8h days of work a week, a 150% pay rise, and £31,824 extra a year. If you are not paid overtime then your hourly rate is £4.08

Rest of the UK, 40h week, Living Wage Hourly Rate + paid overtime:

09:00 – 18:00,  Monday-Friday, 1h unpaid lunch daily = £18,200/year, £350/week, £8.75/hour

+8 hours overtime = +£70/week. This is equivalent to an extra paid 8h day of work a week,  a 20% pay rise, and £3,640.00 extra a year. If you are not paid overtime then your hourly rate is £7.29

+ 60 hours overtime = +£525/week. This is equivalent to an extra 7.5x 8h days of work a week, a 150% pay rise, and £27,300.00 extra a year. If you are not paid overtime then your hourly rate is £3.50

Architectural Education is Work

(BA/BSc/DipArch/MA/MSc/MArch) Architecture is a vocational degree: you have to work in practice to become an ‘Architect’.

arch_school_conf2It’s that time of year again… © Rémi Carreiro for The Varsity

“High fees, debt, the fear of debt, low wages, poor working practices and educational models that reflect aspects of practice based on individualism and competition rather than collective action and mutual support have put intolerable pressure on those students who can still study and has excluded many more” – Robert Mull, architecture director and dean of University of Brighton (Dezeen).

We believe that students shouldn’t be thinking about how to become ‘good’ architects but instead using the opportunity of university to challenge the current practices of architecture and developing alternatives.

  • To what degree is your education promoted as either part of, or outside of, the industry?
  • Will your tutors promote critical thinking?
  • Will you be taught to ask, “What ‘good’ values / ethics should be pursued by the profession”?
  • Will you be encouraged to compete with your peers?
  • Will you feel inclined to boost your own ego?
  • Will your education affect your health?
  • How much will your time and effort be valued, both before and after university?
  • Who, or which company, will fund your end of year show?
  • Will your education prepare you for professional work?
  • Is your choice of university based on networking opportunities for future employment?
  • Will your employer value your personal development?
  • How big is, and will be, your student debt?

Architectural Workers have a manifesto and a list of demands. If you are interested in joining as a student, email us. If you’re returning to study for your Part II/III, how did you find your experience in practice? Fill in our anonymous survey.

We have all been through architectural education and practice and many of you may have experienced discrimination based on ability, age, class, gender, and race. It’s time to do something about it. We can collectively develop alternative forms of work.

Our ambition is to form university branches of of Architectural Workers to help secure better working conditions, alongside a more ethical practice. Defined by you.

RIBA’s New President: Our Position

On Thursday 14th September, Ben Derbyshire, chair of HTA Design (lead consultants on the regeneration of the Aylesbury Estate, amongst many others), will be inaugurated as the new President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

(c) Simon Elmer.jpg

People wear masks of Ben Derbyshire’s face at the Architects for Social Housing-organised protest against the nomination of dRMM’s Trafalgar Place for the 2016 RIBA Stirling Prize. Image: © Mike Kear 

To celebrate, HTA Design will be hosting a £100-a-ticket party to raise money for students in financial hardship. Somewhat ironically, the architectural assistants – the young architects who may at one point be claiming the RIBA hardship fund – who are employed by HTA Design are not always remunerated for their overtime work, and therefore not paid the London Living Wage.

On the same evening, RIBA is also hosting ‘You’re Never Too Young To Change The World’, a networking event “bringing together the cream of the property and architecture world”, organised by YADA (Young Architects and Developers Alliance).

These two events are prime examples of why RIBA does not represent the interests of young architects (- read our previous comments about RIBA here). Whilst, post-Grenfell, the AJ and the Guardian are finally getting to a point where they have to admit that estate regeneration is “toxic“, and suggest that “housing architects do not take a stand“, young architects are being encouraged to cosy up to developers, and celebrate being deserving of charity. Architects at all stages of development have agency; we have a responsibility to determine the ethics by which we practice. For us, this doesn’t involve the destruction and social cleansing of council estates like the Heygate or the Aylesbury for the profit of private developers.

Like many others, Architectural Workers call for the immediate removal of Ben Derbyshire as President of RIBA. He is unfit to lead an institution that is supposed to represent the profession, and highlight the best of British architecture. This is highlighted in the comment, “not everyone believes that public money should be used to subsidise families to live in areas they could not otherwise afford to“, with regard to Will Hurst’s article on the critique of the nomination of Trafalgar Place for the Stirling Prize

Fun fact! Ben Derbyshire wrote a review in the RIBA Journal of Talking Houses, a book written by Colin Ward, an outspoken anarchist architect: “The relevance of the anarchist analysis ought to be self-evident… This book is a valuable source of practical examples of user control and provides glimpses of a well constructed ideological framework to set them…conveyed with absolute clarity.”

[The position of HTA Design within the practice of estate regeneration was represented by Simon Bayliss, Managing Partner, at our recent event “What is the architect’s role in the housing ‘crisis’?”. Read the full transcript here.]

Note: This article was amended on the 13th September 2017. An earlier version said that HTA Design ‘continuously asked [their employees] to work unpaid overtime’. This has been corrected to say that staff of HTA Design are ‘not always remunerated for their overtime work’.


We were invited by Architects for Social Housing to contribute to the collective discussion they facilitated with their residency at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), from August 15th – 20th. 

For those who aren’t familiar with why we exist, we produced a booklet:



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There was also a laptop, which displayed the screen below:


‘Architecture Working’, a short film as viewed through the computer screen of an architectural worker, from university to work. We are underrepresented and over-worked. We are exploited to design out and displace the exploited.

And on the wall we pinned up a series of questions:

Above: © Simon Elmer, Architects for Social Housing

As we have asked before, “What is the architect’s role in the housing crisis?” What do architectural workers think when they are faced with a project that involves regeneration, gentrification and social cleansing?

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 20.58.35




“What is the Architect’s Role in the Housing ‘Crisis’?” / Transcript

Below is a full transcript of the event held on the 28th June at Cressingham Gardens between invited speakers: architects who work in regeneration, academics who specialise in gentrification, housing activists,  and council estate residents; and members of the public. All attendees were invited to take part in an open discussion about the role of the architect in the housing crisis. We wanted to ask what agency the architect has, and discuss its limits and potential. Our aim was to facilitate an active discussion between all of the ‘experts’ in, and those directly affected by, estate ‘regeneration’.

Please click here to download a copy of the full transcript.